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Best College Student Credit Cards of June 2020

NerdWalletMay 1, 2020

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

A student credit card is a great first step in establishing a good credit history. Building good credit might not seem like a priority when you're still in school, but you'll need it down the road if you want to finance a car, buy a house or qualify for the best credit card offers. Your credit can even affect your job prospects and your ability to rent an apartment.

Be aware that simply being a college student may not be enough to qualify you for a “student” card. You’ll generally need access to income, and if you have shaky credit or no credit history at all, you may find it hard to get approved. In that case, consider a secured credit card. These cards require you to put down a cash deposit as collateral. The deposit protects the issuer in case you fail to pay your bill, which reduces the risk of approving you for a card.

Some of our selections for the best college student credit cards can be applied for through NerdWallet, and some cannot. Below, you'll find application links for the credit cards from our partners that are available through NerdWallet, followed by the full list of our picks.

NerdWallet's Best College Student Credit Cards of June 2020

Best College Student Credit Cards From Our Partners

Our pick for

Simplicity and value

Discover it® Student chrome

on Discover's website, or call (800) 347-0264

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

12.99% - 21.99% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% on Purchases for 6 months and 10.99% on Balance Transfers for 6 months

Recommended Credit Score
Discover offers two fine cards for college students. The Discover it® Student chrome shines with its no-maintenance rewards structure and student-friendly bonus categories. You also get a free FICO score, low fees, and forgiveness for your first late payment. Plus, Discover says there's no FICO history requirement for this card.

Pros

You earn 2% cash back at restaurants and gas stations, on up to $1,000 in combined purchases per quarter, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. (Unlike with Discover's other student card, you don't have to "activate" your bonus rewards.) The annual fee is $0. Students with a GPA of 3.0 or higher can earn a $20 statement credit each year for up to five years. There's also Discover's signature bonus for new cardholders.

Cons

Although there's no foreign transaction fee, Discover isn’t as widely accepted abroad as other cards. If you plan to travel internationally, make sure you have a backup plan.
  • INTRO OFFER: Discover will match ALL the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year, automatically. There's no signing up. And no limit to how much is matched.
  • Earn 2% cash back at Gas Stations and Restaurants on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases – automatically.
  • Good Grades Rewards: $20 statement credit each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years.
  • No annual fee. No late fee on first late payment. No APR change for paying late.
  • Get 100% U.S. based customer service & get your free Credit Scorecard with your FICO® Credit Score, number of recent inquiries and more.
  • Freeze It® on/off switch for your account that prevents new purchases, cash advances & balance transfers in seconds.
  • Get an alert if we find your Social Security number on any of thousands of Dark Web sites.* Activate for free.
  • 0% intro APR on purchases for 6 months, then the standard variable purchase APR of 12.99% - 21.99% applies.
  • View Rates and Fees

Our pick for

No credit history and international students

Deserve® Edu Mastercard for Students

on Deserve's website

Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

18.74% Variable

Intro APR

N/A

Recommended Credit Score
The Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students is an excellent option for students who can’t qualify for a credit card because they lack a U.S. credit history, a Social Security number or both.

Pros

Students who might not qualify for other cards have a chance here, as Deserve uses its own underwriting process to evaluate applications based on alternative criteria. Cardholders get unlimited 1% cash back on all purchases, a statement credit for a 12-month Amazon Prime Student subscription (up to $59) and a $30 statement credit every time you refer a friend who qualifies for the card. The annual fee is $0.

Cons

Rewards are redeemable only for statement credit, and you’ll have to wait until you have $25 in rewards (equal to $2,500 in spending) before you can redeem. Other cards offer higher rewards rates, if you can qualify for them.
  • Receive one year of Amazon Prime Student on Deserve after your first purchase with your new Deserve EDU Mastercard (Lifetime Value of $59).
  • Earn 1% Cash Back on all purchases with your Deserve EDU Mastercard. Once approved, you'll automatically start earning cash back on all purchases.
  • Feel secure with cell phone protection up to $600.
  • No deposit required. No annual fees.
  • No international transaction fees on purchases abroad so you can travel with confidence.
  • No Social Security Number required for international students to apply.
  • Refer A Friend Program: Refer anyone to Deserve using your personal referral code. Upon approval, card activation and use, you'll receive $30 and so will your referral. Referral bonuses are unlimited!
  • Manage and track your spending, set automatic payments and securely freeze your card all through one easy to use app.
  • See if you prequalify with no impact to your credit score in minutes.
  • Deserve Mastercards are issued by Celtic Bank, Member FDIC.
  • Enjoy Mastercard Platinum Benefits intended to make your life easier like Mastercard ID Theft Prevention™ and Master Rental®.

Our pick for

Bonus category cash-back rewards

Discover it® Student Cash Back

on Discover's website, or call (800) 347-0264

Rates & Fees
Annual Fee

$0

Regular APR

12.99% - 21.99% Variable APR

Intro APR

0% on Purchases for 6 months and 10.99% on Balance Transfers for 6 months

Recommended Credit Score
The Discover it® Student Cash Back offers rich rewards in quarterly bonus categories, although it requires more work than your typical student card.

Pros

This card offers 5% cash back in rotating categories that you activate, on up to $1,500 in spending per quarter; all other spending earns 1% cash back. There's no annual fee, no late fee on your first late payment and a $20 annual statement credit for good grades (for up to five years). With this card, too, Discover says there is no FICO history requirement.

Cons

Having to activate bonus categories every three months can be a hassle, especially when you're just getting started with credit, and some of the categories might be a poor fit for a student's spending. There's no foreign transaction fee, but Discover isn’t as widely accepted overseas — something to keep in mind if you're studying abroad.
  • INTRO OFFER: Discover will match ALL the cash back you've earned at the end of your first year, automatically. There's no signing up. And no limit to how much is matched.
  • Earn 5% cash back on everyday purchases at different places each quarter like grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, select rideshares and online shopping, up to the quarterly maximum when you activate. Plus, earn unlimited 1% cash back on all other purchases – automatically.
  • Good Grades Rewards: $20 statement credit each school year your GPA is 3.0 or higher for up to the next 5 years.
  • No annual fee. No late fee on first late payment. No APR change for paying late.
  • Get 100% U.S. based customer service & get your free Credit Scorecard with your FICO® Credit Score, number of recent inquiries and more.
  • Freeze It® on/off switch for your account that prevents new purchases, cash advances & balance transfers in seconds.
  • Get an alert if we find your Social Security number on any of thousands of Dark Web sites.* Activate for free.
  • 0% intro APR on purchases for 6 months, then the standard variable purchase APR of 12.99% - 21.99% applies.
  • View Rates and Fees

FULL LIST OF EDITORIAL PICKS:
BEST COLLEGE STUDENT CREDIT CARDS

Click the card name to read our review. Before applying, confirm details on the issuer’s website.

Discover it® Student chrome

Our pick for: Simplicity and value

Simplicity makes the Discover it® Student chrome a standout for students searching for their first credit card. You'll earn bonus cash back at restaurants and gas stations with no activation required and no rotating categories to keep track of. Read our review.

Discover it® Student Cash Back

Our pick for: Bonus category cash-back rewards

The Discover it® Student Cash Back gives students the same excellent rewards as the regular Discover it® Cash Back — notably, bonus cash back in rotating categories that you must activate. Activating and tracking categories might be too much of a hassle for some students brand new to credit cards, but if you're up for a little work, the rewards can be handsome. Read our review.

Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students

Our pick for: No credit history and international students

The Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students doesn’t require applicants to have a co-signer or security deposit, and international students don't need a Social Security number. That makes it a little easier to get approved — even for students with limited credit histories. Plus, it comes with a solid 1% back on all purchases. Read our review.

Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One®

Our pick for: Flat-rate cash-back rewards

The Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® gives newcomers to credit a powerful incentive to develop responsible habits. You earn cash back on every purchase, but when you pay your bill on time, the cash-back rate for that month gets a boost. Read our review.

Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card

Our pick for: Big rewards on small purchases

The Citi Rewards+℠ Student Card offers bonus rewards at gas stations and supermarkets, and its rounding-up feature means you can earn outsize rewards on small purchases. A good option for students with a lot of little expenses. Read our review.

Capital One® Secured Mastercard®

Our pick for: Secured card

The Capital One® Secured Mastercard® requires a security deposit, as do all secured credit cards. But while most cards require you to put down a deposit equal to your credit line, this one allows some qualifying applicants to get a $200 credit line with a deposit of $49 or $99. Further, if you make your first five payments on time, you might get access to a higher credit line with no additional deposit. Read our review.

 

 

Why it’s wise to build credit as a student

Building credit might not seem like an urgent priority when you're still in school, but the earlier you start the clock on your credit history, the better. Having good credit will be important down the road when you want to buy a home or get a car loan, but there are even more immediate benefits. For example, good credit can improve your chances of landing a job or renting an apartment.

Your credit history, detailed in your credit report and summarized by credit scores, shows how well you've handled borrowed money — and using a credit card responsibly is one of the quickest and easiest ways to build credit. Among the situations in which good credit comes in handy:

  • Borrowing money. Whether you’re applying for a credit card, car loan, personal loan, mortgage or other loan, good credit can be the difference between approval and rejection. Further, good credit can qualify you for lower interest rates, which saves you money.
  • Renting an apartment. When you submit an application to rent an apartment, the landlord may look at your credit score to gauge how likely you are to pay your rent on time.
  • Setting up utilities. Utility companies commonly check customers' credit history. If you have bad credit or no credit history, your power company or water utility might require you to pay a deposit or get a letter of guarantee from someone who agrees to pay your bill if you can't.
  • Getting hired: Depending on your profession, you might need good credit to pass an employment screening. Some employers check credit, especially for jobs that require handling other people's money.
  • Starting a business: Some creditors look at your personal credit score when you’re trying to establish business credit. If you dream of starting a business or want to keep the door open to this possibility, a good credit score can keep interest rates affordable.

See and track your credit score

NerdWallet gives you free access to your credit score. Checking doesn't affect your score.

» MORE: 5 questions on applying for a student credit card

Who should apply for a student credit card

Simply being a college student isn't enough by itself to qualify for a student card. Here's what you need to know.

  • Student status might (or might not) matter. Check the card's terms and conditions on the issuer's website for application eligibility. For example, the Journey® Student Rewards from Capital One® does not have an explicit student requirement, while the rules for the Discover it® Student Cash Back say "You must be a college student."
  • Federal law limits who can get credit cards under age 21. Issuers are prohibited from providing cards to people under 21 unless they have proof of independent income or a co-signer — someone who agrees to be responsible for the debt if the primary cardholder doesn't pay the bill. This can be a roadblock since most major credit card issuers don’t allow co-signers.
  • Those 21 or over are also required to provide proof of income. However, they can list any income to which they have “reasonable expectation of access.”
  • Bad credit is usually a dealbreaker. Student credit cards are designed for people with little or no credit history. If you have bad credit because of missed payments or other missteps, you probably won’t qualify for a student card on your own. In that case, look to a card specifically designed for people with bad credit.

» MORE: How to report income on your credit card application

Alternatives to student cards (and options for non-students)

  • If you're under 21 and can't qualify on your own: Have a parent add you as an authorized user on one of their cards. Authorized user status can help you build a credit history. You'll get a card with your name on it that you can use for purchases, but your parent is legally responsible for the debt.
  • If you're over 21 and still have trouble qualifying: Even with a full-time income, it can be hard to qualify for a traditional credit card if you lack a credit history.
    • Some startup companies have begun offering credit cards for people with no credit or limited credit. These issuers use alternative methods to evaluate applications — looking at income, employment status and assets rather than credit history, for example.
    • Secured credit cards are another excellent option. They're easier to qualify for because they require a security deposit, which reduces the risk for credit card issuers. Use one to build a credit history, then move up to a better card. See our best secured credit cards.
  • If you can’t clear any of these hurdles and you want to start building credit: Some rent-reporting services will report your rent payments to credit bureaus for a fee. It can be more affordable than coming up with a deposit for a secured credit card. Being able to prove a good payment history might even help you qualify for a credit card in the future.
  • If you've already established credit and have independent income: Consider bypassing student cards entirely. You might qualify for a credit card that offers better rewards, a generous sign-up bonus or lower interest. If you don't yet meet the criteria for such cards, you can look forward to these options once you establish good credit.

» MORE: What to do if you can't get a student credit card

How to compare student credit cards

Student credit cards generally don't offer the same rewards and perks as “regular” credit cards. That's OK — the main purpose of student cards is to build credit with the goal of qualifying for better cards down the line. A good student credit card will save you money and report to all three credit bureaus (more on that below); rewards on top of that are just a bonus.

» MORE: How to choose a student credit card

Here are some factors to consider as you shop around.

Credit reporting

The student credit card you choose should report to all three credit bureaus: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. These companies gather the information used to calculate credit scores. That's why you want your good payment history recorded by all of them. All of our recommended student cards report to all three bureaus, with the exception of the Deserve® EDU Mastercard for Students, which says it reports to Experian and TransUnion.

Annual fee

It’s ideal to avoid an annual fee when you're on a student budget. In addition to keeping costs low, a no-annual-fee card makes it easier to keep an account open once you build enough credit to move on to better credit cards. Without an annual fee, you can keep your original credit card open to keep the length of your credit history and benefit your credit score.

Introductory and ongoing interest rates

Cards designed for people new to credit tend to have higher interest rates, so it's best to pay your bill in full each month, which allows you to avoid paying interest entirely. However, some student cards give you an introductory 0% interest period, which can be helpful if you have a big purchase you'll need a few months to pay off.

Rewards

If you’re hoping to earn points or cash back for your spending, look for a card that offers a rewards rate of at least 1%. Some student credit cards are more generous, but 1% is a decent rate for a starter card. You’ll get more value if you choose a card whose rewards align with your spending. Some cards also offer a sign-up bonus. These incentives can potentially defray the cost of your college expenses, but only if you’re not overspending to earn them. If you do choose a student credit card with rewards, use it only for those purchases you already make within your budget.

Foreign transaction fees

Foreign transaction fees are surcharges on purchases made outside the country, usually 1% to 3% of the total amount of a transaction. That can represent a serious hit to a student budget if you're spending a full semester in a study abroad program. If you plan to travel outside the U.S., look for a student credit card that doesn't charge foreign transaction fees. Some issuers, including Discover and Capital One, don't charge these fees on any of their cards.

International acceptance

Another consideration when studying abroad is how easily you can use your credit card. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted worldwide, but American Express and especially Discover are less so.

» MORE: The study abroad student's guide to credit cards

Security deposit (for secured cards)

If you're having a hard time qualifying for a student credit card, consider a secured card. These cards require a security deposit, which is usually equal to your credit limit. Minimum deposit requirements tend to be $200 to $300, but some can be as high as $500. Pulling together the deposit can be an obstacle on a student income, so you may have to save up for it, or ask someone to help out. You get your deposit back when you close your account in good standing or upgrade to a “regular” credit card with the same issuer.  See our best secured credit cards.

Making the most of your student credit card

Once you've been approved for a credit card, you’re ready to get to work building credit. Here’s how to use your card to your advantage:

  • Buy only what you can afford. It can be tempting to charge a night out with friends, for example, when you don't have the cash on hand to cover it. But if such spending becomes a habit, it will be costly.
  • Pay on time and in full every month to avoid interest. Use your card as a tool for building good credit, not for spending money you don't have. Use it for small purchases you can afford to pay back on time and in full every month to keep your card’s grace period in effect. You’ll maintain control of your budget and save money on interest.
  • If you can’t pay your full balance, pay more than the minimum. In circumstances when it’s not possible to pay your full balance, at least pay more than the minimum amount due. You’ll make more progress toward eliminating your debt.
  • Use only a portion of your available credit. Your card might have a credit limit of, say, $1,000, but it's not wise to use the full $1,000. Keep your balance under 30% of your limit to maintain a good credit utilization ratio and protect your score. As a student, you probably won’t get a high credit limit anyway, so use your card primarily for smaller purchases.
  • Be strategic with your sign-up bonus and rewards. If your student credit card offers a sign-up bonus, planning your application around upcoming expenses can help you meet the bonus requirements without additional spending. Choosing a credit card with rewards that match your spending will also prove more fruitful for your wallet.
  • Keep your account open if possible. If your credit card doesn’t charge an annual fee, keep it open to maintain the length of your credit history and your credit score. Closing a credit card can end up hurting the score you’ve worked hard to build.

» MORE: 5 Common credit card mistakes that students make — and how to avoid them

What to do with your student credit card after graduation

Once you boost your credit score into the good-to-excellent range, you're more likely to be approved for regular, non-student credit cards with richer rewards and enhanced features. After you graduate and begin working (or move on to graduate school), consider your options with your student credit card:

  • Keep using it. In most cases, you can hold onto your student card even after you graduate. If there's no annual fee on the card, there's no harm in keeping the account open and continuing to use it. However, a different card might provide better rewards or a lower interest rate.
  • Upgrade it. Ask your issuer whether you can switch your account to a different card through a so-called product change. Doing so allows you to move to a card that better suits your needs while keeping the account open. That's beneficial to your credit score because it helps preserve the length of your credit history.
  • Replace it. If you're paying an annual fee on a student card you don't plan to continue using, and the issuer won't upgrade you, you're probably better off applying for a better card and (once approved) closing the student card account.
  • Keep it — but in a drawer. If you can't (or choose not to) upgrade the card but you aren't paying an annual fee, it's smart to keep the account open even after you apply for other cards. Your credit score will benefit. Use a simple "autopay and everyday" strategy to keep your account active with one purchase — or several — throughout the year.

» MORE: Top 5 credit card tips for students

Last updated on May 1, 2020

Methodology

NerdWallet's Credit Cards team selects the best credit cards for college students based on overall value, as evidenced by star ratings, as well as their suitability for specific kinds of students. Factors in our evaluation include annual fees, rewards programs (both earning rates and redemption options), promotional and ongoing APRs, bonus offers for new cardholders, incentives for responsible behavior, free credit scores and other credit education, availability to applicants with thin or no credit history, and other noteworthy features such as a path to upgrade to a different product later on.

Frequently asked questions

In general, college student cards can be easier to qualify for than regular cards because they are specifically designed for people just starting out with credit. If you don’t have much of a credit history — if you’re a so-called “thin file” consumer — you’ll have trouble getting approved for many credit cards. The approval process for a student card, on the other hand, might de-emphasize credit history in favor of other criteria that suggest you’re a good credit risk, including your income and the fact that you’re in college studying toward a career.

Often, college student cards offer features of special interest to people new to credit. These include incentives for responsible behavior, such as a bonus for good grades or a reward for always paying on time. They may also come with a free credit score and tools to help you learn to manage credit responsibly.

Note, however, that while student cards might be more forgiving of an applicant with no credit history, they’re not for people with bad credit. If your credit score has taken a serious hit from mistakes you’ve made or from simple bad fortune, look to a card designed for “rebuilding” credit, such as a secured card, rather than a card for “establishing” credit, like a student card.

It’s harder than it used to be to get a credit card as a student, especially for those who don’t have significant income they can report on their application.

There was a time when college students had very little trouble getting credit cards. Looking to build relationships with a desirable demographic — college-educated consumers with high earning potential — issuers flooded campuses with applications and would even offer incentives like a free pizza or T-shirt for opening an account. Students could get approved for a wallet full of cards even without income. Millions of students got started building credit this way, but many also ended up getting into trouble, running up debts they couldn’t repay.

This kind of marketing ended with the Credit Card Act of 2009, a federal law that prohibited issuers from giving cards to people under 21 unless those people had independent income or a co-signer to guarantee their debt.

In general, you need to be at least 18 to get a credit card account in your own name. (People younger than that can be an authorized user on someone else’s account.) However, there are special rules that apply to credit card applicants under age 21.

If you’re under 21 years old, you must be able to show on your application that you have independent income (such as from a job, allowance or scholarships and grants), or you must have someone else agree to co-sign your application. (A co-signer is someone who agrees to pay your bill if you don’t.) This is a requirement in federal law, designed to prevent issuers from giving credit cards to young people who have no means of paying for their charges.

If you’re 21 or over, you still have to show that you have income, but you can include all income to which you have “reasonable expectation of access.” That includes your own income but also income from a spouse, partner or other member of your household.

Having a job may improve your chances for being approved for a student credit card, but what’s most important is having income. If you’re under 21, you’ll need to show that you have independent income (such as from a job, allowance or scholarships and grants), or you’ll need to get a co-signer for your application. If you’re 21 or older, you can include any income that you have access to. Learn more about which income you can include on a credit card application.

Alternatives to getting a student credit card include:

1. Becoming an authorized user. An authorized user is essentially piggybacking on someone else's credit card account (usually a parent's). You get a card with your name on it, but the primary cardholder is legally responsible for paying the bill. Authorized-user status can help you build credit if the issuer reports activity on the account in your name as well as in the name of the primary cardholder.

2. Finding a co-signer. A co-signer on a credit card is someone who agrees to pay the debt on the card if the primary cardholder does not. Most major credit card issuers no longer allow co-signers, but smaller banks and credit unions often do. Having a co-signer can make it possible to qualify for a card you couldn't get on your own.

3. Applying for a secured card. Secured cards are designed for people with bad credit or no credit. You put down a cash security deposit, and you get a card with a credit limit that's usually equal to your deposit. The card works like any other credit card — you charge purchases and then pay them off — but if you fail to pay your bill, the issuer can take your deposit to satisfy the debt. When you close or upgrade the account, you can get your deposit back. See NerdWallet's best secured cards.

4. Using a prepaid debit card. If your primary concern is the convenience of paying with a card rather than cash or checks, a prepaid debit card can be a suitable alternative. With prepaid debit, you "load" money onto the card, and your purchases are paid for out of that money. However, because a prepaid debit card does not involve borrowing money, it won't build your credit like a credit card would. See NerdWallet's best prepaid debit cards.